Mircea Dincă: Targeting Molecules with Tiny Sponges
Published October 01, 2021
Mircea Dincă creates materials in the lab with surface features that can’t be found in nature. He then makes variants with electrical properties that other scientists once thought impossible. This is groundbreaking basic research with many emerging applications. One is particularly exciting: a supercapacitor to power a Lamborghini supercar.
Dincă, a professor of chemistry at MIT, is this year’s Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists Laureate in Chemistry. He heads a lab that synthesizes novel organic-inorganic hybrid materials and manipulates their electrochemical and photophysical properties.
Dincă and his students work with metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs. “These are basically what I like to call sponges on steroids because they are enormously porous,” Dincă told the Academy in a recent interview. “They have fantastically high surface areas, higher than anything that humanity has ever known.”
MOFs have a hollow, crystalline, cage-like structure, consisting of an array of metal ions surrounded by organic “linker” molecules. Scientists can “tune” their porosity, creating MOFs that can capture molecules of different properties and size.
To help conceptualize the large surface area of MOFs, Dincă says a gram of the material would, if flattened out, cover an entire football field. This means their pores can hold an almost unimaginably large number of molecules. One application capitalizing on this capacity is gas storage. For example, a canister filled with MOFs would hold nine times more CO2 than an empty canister. Other emerging uses have included devices to manage heat, antimicrobial products, gas separation, and devices for scrubbing emissions and carbon capture.
Dincă first encountered MOFs as a graduate student. Several years later, after considerable research on the electronic structure of materials, he started envisioning MOFs with properties that had not been widely considered before. “Previously, people thought that metal-organic frameworks are just ideal insulators,” Dincă said. “But we realized that there are certain types of building blocks that, when put together, would allow the free flow of electrical charges.” This was something of a paradigm shift in the field.
Dincă and his students started synthesizing MOFs with a variety of organic ligands and metal combinations to create materials that are both porous and conducting. They also developed ways to grow MOF crystals so they can be more easily studied with imaging tools, permitting analysis of their structure, atom-by-atom. The new techniques and materials have led to MOFs that might prove valuable for batteries, fuel cells, and energy storage. Dincă’s lab and MIT have signed a partnership with Lamborghini to use MOF supercapcitors in the company’s planned Terzo Millennio sportscar.
Dincă and his students also study the use of MOFs as catalysts, and as chemical sensors. They explore how these materials interact with light, which could lead to smart windows that lighten or darken automatically. Better solar cells are yet another possible application.
More efficient air conditioning, with considerable environmental benefit, is another goal. Dincă has co-founded a start-up called Transaera to build MOF-based cooling equipment that pulls water molecules out of air so that the AC doesn’t work as hard. The key is tuning the pores of the MOFs to just the right size to capture water at just the right humidity.
Scaling up remains a challenge for many of these applications. “It’s one thing to make a few grams in a laboratory, it’s quite another to make hundreds of kilograms so you can take them out into the real world,” Dincă said.
Dincă grew up in Romania, and says he got his first taste of chemistry in 7th grade. An MIT departmental biography playfully suggests “that having a dedicated teacher that did spectacular demonstrations with relatively limited regard for safety” was the initial influence. One imagines awe-inspiring, semi-controlled explosions in the front of a classroom of 12 year olds. In the following years, Dincă started participating in the Chemistry Olympiads, and in 1998, when he was in high school, he won first place at an international competition in Russia.
At the time, Dincă found he was running up against limits to his education. “I think the biggest challenges to my becoming a scientist were, early on in Romania where I grew up, that we just didn't have access to labs, to books,” Dincă said. “That made me thirsty for knowledge.” So Dincă was eager to travel to the U.S. when he was offered a scholarship for undergraduate studies at Princeton. He then earned a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. He has been teaching and conducting research at MIT since 2008.
Dincă met his wife, who is also from Romania, while they were both students at Princeton. She is a lawyer, and the couple have two children, Amalia and Gruia. Dincă’s father is a retired Romanian Orthodox priest, and his mother, a retired kindergarten teacher.
When he is not with his family or at work, Dincă might be running, hiking, or taking photographs.
Dincă enjoys teaching, including freshmen chemistry. For his more advanced students and postdocs, Dincă says he fosters original thinking by giving them as much responsibility as possible. “As a Principal Investigator myself, I tend to be very hands-off,” Dincă explained. “And that's good because it allows students to take ownership of their projects and become creative themselves. In fact, most of the best ideas in my lab come from the students, not myself.”
One of the best things about being a scientist, Dincă said, is constant exposure to the unknown, and he is pleased when his commitment to basic research is recognized. “Being a Blavatnik National Award Laureate is, of course, fantastic recognition of my research, of my group's efforts,” Dincă said. “But also, most importantly for me, it is recognition of the fact that curiosity-driven research is still appreciated.”
While curiosity may drive Dincă’s scientific inquiries, he believes applied research with new classes of MOFs will help address important environmental challenges. At the same time, there can be no doubt that one application may prove especially thrilling. “Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that just thinking about electrical current in porous materials would take me on a path to helping make an electric Lamborghini,” Dincă said. “But that is where our research has led us.”
The nomination window for the 2022 Blavatnik National Awards will open on October 6, 2021 and close on November 17, 2021. Learn more